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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

That Stinks! 1 in 15 Americans Smell Odors That Aren’t There

A young woman holding her nose because of an odor.

A new study finds that 1 in 15 Americans (or 6.5 percent) over the age of 40 experiences phantom odors.

Imagine the foul smell of an ash tray or burning hair. Now imagine if these kinds of smells were present in your life, but without a source. A new study finds that 1 in 15 Americans (or 6.5 percent) over the age of 40 experiences phantom odors. The study, published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, is the first in the U.S. to use nationally representative data to examine the prevalence of and risk factors for phantom odor perception. The study could inform future research aiming to unlock the mysteries of phantom odors.

The study was led by Dr. Kathleen Bainbridge of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program at NIDCD. She and her team used data from 7,417 participants over 40 years of age from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The NHANES data were collected by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; data collection was partly funded by NIDCD.

“Problems with the sense of smell are often overlooked, despite their importance. They can have a big impact on appetite, food preferences and the ability to smell danger signals such as fire, gas leaks and spoiled food,” said Dr. Judith A. Cooper, acting NIDCD director.

Dr. Donald Leopold, one of the study’s authors and clinical professor in the department of surgery at the University of Vermont Medical Center, adds that patients who perceive strong phantom odors often have a miserable quality of life and sometimes cannot maintain a healthy weight.

The ability to identify odors in the environment is known to decrease with age. This study found that the prevalence of phantom odor perception also decreases with age and, interestingly, is not related to individuals’ ability to correctly identify odors.

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